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Bar News - December 13, 2013

Opinion: Holiday Book Shopping: What to Get for the Lawyer on Your List


“Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat.”

So goes the nursery rhyme, where things are not looking good for the goose. But that’s not my point this month. In a nod to the season, let’s consider this, instead: how Christmas and lawyers go together like statutes of limitation and wrapping paper. Or, in other words: what books should you buy for that special attorney in your life, to make his or her Christmas complete?

Tired of Atticus Finch and his holier-than-thou antics on behalf of the poor and oppressed? (Alternative question: have you been practicing law longer than say, three months?) Then find yourself a copy of Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild instead. Fielding, one of the pioneers of the English novel, is most famous for Tom Jones, an encylopedic satire of 18th Century upper-class life (Thomas Jefferson was a big fan). But he made his living as a local magistrate, that era’s equivalent of a district court judge, and he poured his keen observational skills, his dry wit, and his genial skepticism about humankind’s limitations in general into this slender tale of a self-promoting highwayman whose main genius seemed to be for getting arrested all the time. Added bonus: the real-life criminal upon whom Fielding built his work doubled as the inspiration for John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a big favorite of George Washington. He and Jefferson might not have agreed on much, but they liked their criminals to have some flair.

Looking for that next great Grisham novel, and your local bookstore is out of not just The Jury, but also The Trial, The Jury Trial, Son of the Jury Trial, and Hey, That Guy Took My Parking Space? Then go for the first legal thriller ever written, instead: Catriona, by Robert Louis Stevenson. This odd sequel to Kidnapped is not quite kid stuff. Supporting character and canny rebel Alan Breck Stewart is fighting for his life in a Scottish courtroom this time, and relying on his old friend David Balfour to make sure his trial is fair. Does he escape these rigged proceedings, or can Davie convince him to stay and fight them? Which course does Davie himself think is best? Why aren’t more baby girls named “Catriona” these days? And why haven’t they made a movie of this yet?

Can’t stand one more iteration of A Christmas Carol? Then toss Tiny Tim into the fireplace (poof!), and cuddle up with Bleak House instead, perhaps the greatest novel ever written about the law. Dickens knew his subject intimately, and he tore it to shreds. His central joke is that for all its majesty, prestige, and real power, the law exists in the end to serve only itself. That depiction is time- and place-specific. It is fully British, and of a piece with that nation’s mercantilist history. That a major international law firm recently found itself sued by a client for excessive billing practices (the discovery process of that trial produced internal emails stating, inter alia, “churn that bill, baby”) is surely sheer coincidence. Because really, things have changed since then.

Running low on Swedish crime tales, and looking for more girls with dragon tattoos? Then stay away from Miracle on 34th Street, which is not a book, anyway, but a movie; the movie that made Macy’s in Manhattan into a place of importance second only to a manger in Bethlehem, for a proper understanding of the Nativity. But I need to mention it here, because there is no other Christmas story that so utterly revolves around the law. It ends with a trial, for gosh sakes, with Santa Claus himself in the dock.
District Attorney: What is your name?
Kris Kringle: Kris Kringle.
District Attorney: Where do you live?
Kris Kringle: That’s what this hearing will decide.
Judge Henry X. Harper: A very sound answer, Mister Kringle.
District Attorney: Do you really believe that you’re Santa Claus?
Kris Kringle: Of course.
District Attorney: [long pause] The state rests, your honor.
And so does your friendly columnist, to whom this holiday also means “good time” for his clients in the county house, and maybe a few extra weeks for the poor to pay their fines in court. Happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all a good night.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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